'Snow-How': The Winter Playbook At Nordic Airports

In the U.S., airports have suffered delays due to the polar vortex, but in Nordic countries defying the snow is almost a sport. Heini Noronen-Juhola, an expert on aviation and safety, explains.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

It's happening again. Yet another massive winter storm is covering much of the central U.S. with freezing rain and snow. Thousands of flights have already been cancelled across the country. Well, this would not be the case if you lived in any Nordic country. Nordic countries face brutal snow every year and their winter lasts five months. But their airports almost never close.

To find out their secret, we turned to Heini Noronen-Juhola. She helped device a playbook of about 25 different kinds of plowing patterns to clear snow off the runways at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. That playbook is part of a comprehensive approach including offseason training, fancy machines and careful choreography. They call it snowhow.

HEINI NORONEN-JUHOLA: Snowhow is more or less like the attitude towards this whole thing. We have to make sure that all that works really quickly whenever needed and everybody's ready all the time. So that's a mindset, I'd say.

RATH: So that sounds like the coordination would be pretty complicated in addition, obviously, to the planes coming in and going out, a lot of big equipment that you have running almost constantly.

It's quite important to work together. The air traffic control gives slots to runways for our maintenance team. So we don't close the runways for this purpose. We will just give them slots to do the clearing.

We've heard that you consider your airport to be the world's champions of snowhow. Why is that?

NORONEN-JUHOLA: Well, I'd like to say that because it sounds really cool. But in fact, when Heathrow went closed in 2010 just before Christmas for one week because of snow conditions, we realized that we are doing something really well.

RATH: Is there a big of rivalry with the Nordic countries with more of your neighbors about who can do the better job?

Yes, it is. But it's really friendly rivalry. We are always competing. But we are, of course, the best.

When was the last time that you actually had to close the airport?

NORONEN-JUHOLA: Yeah. It was in 2003, and that was for 30 minutes. That was because we had at the same time snow and some air traffic control problems.

RATH: And how does that record compare with Norway?

Really well.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Heini Noronen-Juhola is the vice president for Aviation and Safety at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. Heini, thank you so much.

NORONEN-JUHOLA: Thank you so much.

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